By Mohamed Ahmed
BAIDOA, Somalia (Reuters) – Ethiopian troops backing Somalia’s government opened fire killing nine civilians on Wednesday, after being targeted by insurgents in the central town of Baidoa where parliament sits, residents said.
The shots were fired after Islamist-led insurgents detonated a landmine targeting an Ethiopian foot patrol. It was the second attack targeting the allied forces in a week, and exposed the interim government’s inability to secure law and order in even its biggest stronghold.
Lawmakers said the security risk posed by the al-Shabaab military wing of a sharia courts movement ousted at the end of 2006 had forced several of them to flee the trading outpost where parliament meets in a former grain storehouse.
"We cannot work under such circumstances. Our own safety is in jeopardy," said one legislator, who was too afraid to give his name. "Most of the neighbouring districts surrounding Baidoa have been taken over by al-Shabaab. Some lawmakers have fled."
Baidoa’s governor Abdifatah Mohamed Ibrahim said the attacks in Baidoa — seven this month — had seriously hampered security in the town despite the large presence of Ethiopian soldiers.
"We know those who are against our administration are behind these attacks," he told Reuters. "It is really distressing for civilians to have died."
The insurgents attacked hours before Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein flew in from Mogadishu for a meeting with legislators that was held under tight security.
"It’s getting worse, the whole country is under siege," said another lawmaker who fled to neighbouring Kenya.
Al-Shabaab, on a U.S. list of terrorist organisations, claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on a website commonly used by militants in Somalia. It said five Ethiopian troops were killed in the attack and vowed to step up assaults against what it sees as an "occupation force".
Al-Shabaab also said its militants also executed a senior military official in Beletweyne, north of the capital on Wednesday, while two of their fighters died in the capital Mogadishu in battles with government forces.
"Whatever they (Ethiopians) do will not stop the holy jihad targeting God’s enemies," the website statement said.
Analysts say such attacks are aimed at instilling fear among lawmakers to stop them from carrying out their duties. They said the strategy is also to weaken government troops and their Ethiopian allies before a major attack anytime soon.
"The al-Shabaab is testing the Ethiopians," an analyst who did not want to be named told Reuters.
"They want to know how prepared the government and Ethiopian troops are before they launch a massive attack and seize the town for hours, kill those they want and take what they can."
Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict, which a local rights group says killed 6,500 civilians in Somalia last year. Many fear being caught in between gunmen waging an Iraqi-style insurgency of assassinations and roadside bombings and retaliatory fire from the Somali-Ethiopian troops.